Content warning: genocide, murder; contains spoilers about the novel Bruny by Heather Rose
In the 2019 novel Bruny, Tasmanian author Heather Rose proposes a scenario where the entire state is sold to the Chinese. The Tasmanian population is then exiled to Bruny Island, off the southeast coast of Tasmania. Although the author describes this narrative as ‘naughty’ and ‘satirical,’ Bruny is better described as a cruel and irresponsible racist fantasy.
I’m writing this from Bruny Island, or lunawanna-alonnah as it is known in palawa kani, the reclaimed Indigenous language of Tasmania. It’s beautiful here. My window looks across the garden to a lush forest, through which I can catch a glimpse of the ocean. Most evenings a white wallaby visits the yard, and I fall asleep listening to the distant waves.
The privilege that enables me to enjoy this beauty comes from a history of genocide. This history has recently been told by historian Cassandra Pybus in her book Truganini: Journey Through the Apocalypse. This book tells the story of Truganini, an Indigenous Tasmanian palawa woman born on lunawanna-alonnah around 1812.
Before she had turned 20, colonizers had murdered Truganini’s mother and kidnapped her sisters into slavery. She lived through the most violent period of European aggression against Tasmania’s Indigenous people. It was, as Pybus suggests, an apocalyptic time.
Truganini lived most of her life in exile from lunawanna-alonnah, partly on islands in the Bass Strait, where survivors of the European war against Tasmania’s Indigenous population were resettled. This enforced exile was part of deliberate efforts to destroy the palawa people.
Rose’s novel mirrors this history intentionally. It offers a perverse inversion: a fantasy where the beneficiaries of colonial genocide become its victims. At one point, the protagonist muses, “Is this how the Aborigines had felt? …All these foreigners arriving. Arriving and not leaving again.” And when the Chinese plan to exile Tasmanians to lunawanna-alonnah is revealed, one character speculates that the plan will work because, “The Aborigines got moved [and] the government got away with that.”
This inversion encourages colonisers to think of themselves as victims, but not in a way that creates empathy. Instead it encourages a sense of victimhood that replaces and erases Indigenous history, in the same way settlers attempted to replace Indigenous populations. It is a cruel, anti-Indigenous fantasy, succinctly captured by the author Jinghua Qian: “Colonists are desperate to be invaded.”
But beyond being merely cruel, Rose’s narrative is irresponsible, given the historical moment in which it was written and published. Bruny was released amidst intense public debate in Australia about Chinese political influence, and widespread assertions that this debate was contributing to anti-Asian racism.
Much of this debate was triggered by the book Silent Invasion by Clive Hamilton, published in 2018. The Australian race discrimination commissioner at the time, Tim Soutphommasane, raised concerns that Hamilton’s book was “fanning the flames” of “Sinophobic racial sentiment.”
Chinese foreign interference in Australia is real. I’ve spoken publicly about my own experience of it, due to my research on China’s oppressive policies in Tibet. But the invasion narrative promoted by Hamilton inflates anxieties about foreign interference and converts them into racist yellow peril narratives. Interference is not invasion.
As University of Sydney academic David Brophy remarks, Roses’ novel Bruny is “Silent Invasion in fictional form.” Rose has claimed her novel is not racist, and only addresses Chinese influence as a topic of public concern. But the text is replete with racist stereotypes. The Chinese are inscrutable and greedy. They live in shabby, tiny apartments. They manufacture poor quality junk. They are good at repetitive mechanical tasks and incapable of creative thought.
But even more concerning is the way that Bruny’s narrative ties these Sinophobic anxieties to harmful right-wing ideologies. Why do the Chinese want to buy Tasmania? Rose tells us that it’s because their population is growing too fast. Their country has become overcrowded and dirty. Tasmania, with its clean air, rich soil and pristine environment, is “a sitting duck.”
These ideas—excessive population growth, environmental decay, and population replacement—are the core concepts of ecofascism. They merge effortlessly with white supremacy to suggest that ‘non-white’ populations are an existential environmental threat.
These ideas are bolstered by a pervasive sense in Rose’s book that ‘our’ way of life is under threat. The government has sold us out to commercial interests for a quick buck and a cynical grab for power. Our quietude and community are being torn apart by globalisation. Our culture is threatened by political correctness. And, as one of Rose’s characters tells us, there is “…a fear of speaking out. Of being seen as racist and xenophobic…”
This is a laundry list of right-wing populist ideas. And they are the foundations of the ideologies that motivated the white supremacist terrorists who carried out the Christchurch massacre, where 51 people were killed, and the mass shooting in El Paso where 23 people were murdered. Both of these events took place in 2019 in the months prior to the publication of Bruny. And yet the novel’s publisher, Allen and Unwin, still went ahead and published a book that trafficked in these dangerous ideas.
Genocide historian Dirk Moses, writing in the wake of Christchurch massacre, encouraged us to critically reflect on how paranoid narratives of white genocide and population replacement were permitted to circulate publicly. He argued that these narratives promote a ‘genocidal subjectivity.’ This subjectivity is a powerful, but false, sense of being a victim of genocide. For those captivated by this ‘genocidal subjectivity,’ killing can seem like self-defense.
Bruny helps to both spread and legitimise this sort of genocidal subjectivity. As a compelling piece of fiction it is particularly effective at doing this. But its status as fiction shouldn’t excuse it from scrutiny. Indeed, this is part of what has allowed the novel’s dangerous ideologies to bypass critical examination and circulate so widely.
In doing so, the novel appropriates Tasmania’s real history of genocide—the apocalypse that Truginini lived through—to suggest that settler Tasmanians could one day soon be the victims of a genocide, perpetrated by China. This is a cruel and irresponsible narrative.
Australia has a real history of invasion and genocide. Australian settlers continue to fail to confront and address this history. In part, we do this by imaging that we are being invaded and wiped out. This false sense of catastrophic victimhood lies at the heart of the idea that Australia is being invaded by China.
Australia was already invaded once. It is not being invaded again now.